Tech \ Technique \ Gear Tips

Starting out, part 10

Format wars: which side are you on?

2017 Dec 27     
2 Bit Thugs

In the latest installment of our series for beginners, Harold Heath wonders which format a DJ should use...

For many old, grey, wizened DJs, there was really only one format, and that was vinyl - unless of course, you were Greg Wilson, and then you had to use a pair of Revox B77 reel-to-reel tape players. DJs today, however, have a few more options. So when you first decide that you might quite fancy spinning a few tunes, you're faced with a decision that many of your DJ heroes never had to make: which format are you going to DJ with?

Many DJs tend to take the cheapest option when starting out, as it makes little sense to invest large sums in something you’re just trying for the first time. And the cheapest option is usually is stealing a pair of Revox B77s. No, not really. The cheapest option is going to be a laptop and controller, or a just a couple of USB drives. If you're going the USB drive route, that's great - you can turn up to a gig with loads of tunes, but you won't have ever practised mixing or programming, so you might want to consider rethinking such a minimalist approach.

I’m losing control
Controllers allow you to quickly and effectively sync up your tunes, and there's even software to organise your virtual record box for you, you tiny helpless DJ baby. Lots of DJ software is pretty cool, letting you set multiple cue points, making beatmatching and looping super easy and so on. The downside is that you have to turn up to your gig, then negotiate plugging in your controller and hooking it all up without unplugging anything important or getting in the way of the other DJ - all while trying to appear not in the slightest bit concerned that you're 99% certain you've forgotten at least one cable. Oh my god, where is it, I absolutely triple checked it, I'm completely fucked... oh there it is. Cool.

If you want to go digital but also feel the need to mix a pair of large discs together by hand, then you can use Serato's 'control vinyl' 12"s to mix your tunes. This is a bit of a halfway house for DJs who like the 'I’m actually doing something' aspect of mixing on vinyl, but who also like that whole ‘I’ve got all my shit lined up on my Mac and it’s a lot easier than a box of records I can tell you’ vibe’.

USB drives are great, as long as the club has decks you can plug 'em into. The best thing about USB drives is that a single one can hold literally a million billion Googleplex songs (probably). But depending on what tier of the DJ hierarchy you’re working at, you might be playing at a venue that has older CDJs which aren’t compatible with USB drives, so it's always good to have a back-up. The most effective DJ back-up is, of course, your trusty Revox 377.

Ableton Live is cool for DJing, but if you use it without a controller you look really boring just staring at your screen. My chiropractor also says that there's an epidemic of neck, back and shoulder problems on the way from everyone using trackpads on their laptops, so definitely get yourself a controller. Another DJing option is to use Pioneer CDJs to control your external hard drive in order to airdrop your tracks to a MIDI-enabled keytar which you can then drop live in the mix, on the fly and such.

Blowing fluff off the needle
CDs are the old person's choice of DJ format. If you bring a couple of CD wallets to the gig, be prepared for people to ask you what you did during the war and how many grandchildren you have. Which they don't do with vinyl, even though vinyl is way older than CDs. Dance music is a capricious beast.

Speaking of vinyl, if you fancy an entirely different DJing experience then buy a pair of Technics 1200s, a mixer, cables, styluses, slip mats, record cleaning equipment and all the other accoutrements that go along with it and become a vinyl DJ. Oh and you'll need to start buying vinyl too. Pros of vinyl include the undeniable fact that records smell nice, and that it's ace getting vinyl in the post when your housemates are opening their bills. Vinyl also apparently possesses a mysterious magical quality called ‘warmth’ which is obviously great. What's more, it looks like you’re actually doing something when you’re DJing with vinyl; flicking through your record box, fiddling with the sleeves, blowing fluff off the needle, all that stuff, brilliant.

On the negative side, 12" vinyl is expensive, particularly when you compare it to music that is free. It's also a little fragile and if you touch it in the wrong way it'll start crackling whenever you play it. It’s very heavy to carry around - in fact, two packed record boxes weigh about the same as a small family car. Something else to consider with vinyl is that you have to tell everyone all the time that you play vinyl, and you also have to announce the weight of your vinyl - whether it's 120, 160 or 180 gramme. I'm not sure why, it just became a thing lately. Don't blame me for broken Britain.

Pick a side
Perhaps the best thing of all about formats is the arguing. Once you’ve picked a format, you’ll need to defend its honour at after-parties, in the smoking area and online. In order to win - and at the end of a decent format skirmish, there can be only one victor - you’ll need a decent raft of arguments and counter-arguments ready to go at any moment. You’ll need to know your lossless FLAC from your .WAV files, your ‘subtle high-end distortion’ from your ‘warm and engaging sound’, and at times you'll need to be able to blindly refuse to look facts in the face.

There is an alternative, however - a third way. That is to entirely reject formats as a defining feature of your DJing, and understand them for what they truly are - simply different methods of delivery. The third way is to be some kind of enlightened format master, an overlord of all the music playback methods, a black belt 12th dan - a DJ who understands that it's the content and not the delivery method that counts.

Obviously, as a DJ, you have to be committed to providing your audience with the highest quality audio you possibly can - no one wants to hear your 64Kbps MP3 YouTube rips. But the one, secret universal truth of DJing that you have to know, is that as long as you make a good job of it, NO ONE CARES WHICH FORMAT YOU USE. 

Okay, a couple of people on the dancefloor might briefly exchange words about MP3s, controllers or rotary mixers - they’ll be that rare band of DJs who actually go out and dance to other DJs. Just as a pair of restaurant critics might comment on the decor before tucking into their quail's egg sandwiches, DJs in clubs are likely to pass comment on the setup or what the DJ is up to. But everyone else at the rave? They don’t care. They care about dancing and having fun. They do not care if your vinyl is 120 gramme or 160 or if your controller has the latest suite of FX. They really don’t. If you play a good tune, they’ll care about that.

As ever with DJing, the stuff around it - all the machines with their colourful blinking lights, multiple sub-menus and enticing knobs - can be terribly good fun, but when it's 3am and you're about to take over the decks, no one will really mind how you do it. Just as long as you do it good.

Words: Harold Heath Pic: Paulo Guereta/Wiki Commons





Tags: Harold Heath, starting out, beginners, novice DJs, how to DJ, DJ skills, formats, vinyl, CD, MP3, Serato, Ableton Live